Buddhist Resources




Nature of Mind

How the Mind Works

and what we can do about it


How Our Mind Works and What We Can Do About It.


Meditation for relaxation is fine, but we also need to examine how our mind works, to look under the hood, so to speak. By investigating the ways in which we are hard-wired by our default operating system, we can learn how to adjust it in ways that create less suffering for ourselves and others.


First, we have to slow down. All too often we are “going over our own speed limit” and seem to be leaning into the future rather than being in the present. A friend once told me that she was on her honeymoon for two days before she stopped planning her wedding. Our thinking mind can take over as we go faster and faster. No longer aligned with the present moment, we lose a felt sense of being at home in the world and become isolated.


First, we need to catch up with ourselves and learn to settle into living in our own skin. Meditation helps us do this by following our breathing. We can’t breathe in the future or the past, only in the present. Once we slow down and are able to focus inward, we can begin to understand a few basics of how our mind works. As we learn to take a step back from our minds, we to learn to witness our thinking rather simply react to it. In time, as we continue to meditate and to gain insight, we begin to understand that our minds are capable of conjuring up all sorts of nonsense mixed in with intelligent responses. In time, we learn not to identify with our immediate response, but to just watch our thoughts, our emotions, and our sometime crazy reactions. In this type of meditation, we don't do anything but view the mind in action without reacting. We don't think about watching the mind, we just watch it. This often requires patience.


When we start paying attention to our minds, we find certain patterns that are apparently hardwired. When we see something, we tend to want it, push it away, or be neutral. When we want it, we reach out to grasp it. Or we see it, don't want it, then push it away. In addition, we make judgments about it. It's good, it's bad. In this way, attachment and aversion are born and perpetuated.


According to the neuroscientists, our minds have developed in these ways to make us more efficient in dealing with a situation. Having this mega-sorting system in the brain – we want it, we don’t want it, we don’t care – makes it easy to make quick decisions, but also has a downside if we want to live a more nuanced life. An awful lot goes on in the middle.


Basically, in terms of evolutionary development, in terms of survival, we’ve developed what they call “a bias toward negativity” that comes from scanning the environment for what will harm us. Clearly, the person who scans the steppes for a charging woolly mammoth is going to last longer and reproduce more often than a person who stands watching the sunset, thinking “it’s all good.” Although this is the old brain speaking, we can use a newer part of the brain (the neocortex) to both become aware of this tendency and to do something about it. Rick Hanson, in Buddha’s Brain, advises us to balance out this negativity by thinking of something positive that happened to us during the day for at least two minutes before we go to sleep at night.


Neuroscience explains the mind as it relates to parts of the brain and new insights are being brought forth all the time. Although the language they use is different, much of the research in neuroscience resonates with age-old Buddhist psychology as taught in the secular “nature of mind” teachings. Witnessing the contents of the mind is enormously helpful in understanding how the mind works, but we also need to study not just the contents of our minds, but how certain different modes of consciousness operate.


There are a number of different ways of talking about the various aspects of the mind, some very elaborate. A very basic model, suggested by Tsoknyi Rinpoche in Fully Being, focuses on four different modes of the mind: knowing, the moving mind, awareness, and clarity. Although these work together in practice, we’ll discuss them one by one, focusing on the moving mind and awareness.


First, as we look out to perceive the world, there is knowing, we know a bird is a bird, a flower is a flower, we don’t need to be told.  It’s just there automatically.


On the other hand, thinking, is part of the moving mind. It can involve some reflection or analysis or judgment of the object we “know.”  For example, we may wonder about the name of the flower, or remember a garden with similar flowers we played in as a child. Or worry that your roses are getting aphids. It goes on and on.  

In the West, this mode of the moving mind is dominant and has accomplished tremendous things: cities, medical advances, and the arts. Little of the advanced material world we live in would be possible without our moving minds.  On the other hand, neither would guns, roadside bombs, nor wars.


On a personal level, our moving mind is always reacting, making decisions, planning, judging. We need it to do all of these things, but it also can become fixated and self-identified, leading to the creation of a sort of false self or “mini-me.” This self-enclosed consciousness defends what it sees as “me” or “mine” and builds walls to keep out an awareness of what is “not-me.” This is bolstered by an inner narrative voice spinning out “fake news” about ourselves to ourselves.  In this sense, we can become a figment of our own imagination.


Happily, there is a way out of living inside this self-imposed bubble. It begins by learning how to shift from the moving mind into other modes of consciousness, specifically to awareness.


Awareness, like knowing, is naturally there. When we work with the mind in meditation, we are working through awareness. It can and should be trained, developed and strengthened. First, we have to become conscious of it since it is quiet and our normally speedy, moving mind tends to be pretty loud. It is through awareness that we develop our natural capacity to watch our minds, to reflect and to become self-aware.  The capacity to do so is innately there, we just have to activate it.


We do so by first experiencing it. We turn our consciousness backwards rather than looking out. “Turn your eyes and look at the back of your skull,” is a typical suggestion among Tibetans when giving nature of mind teachings. Then, ask yourself: “Who’s there?” “Who is asking this question?”  Or we can just be very quiet and let it emerge on its own. If the moving mind’s dialogue – that tendency to narrate our lives as we’re trying to live it – tries to dominate, there are a number of work-arounds we can try.


Mantra (a repeated phrase) simply means mind protection.  The repeated phrase takes over the moving mind’s tendency to talk to ourselves. In addition to chanting the traditional Sanskrit mantras, we can make up our own mantra to help us out of tricky situations. Tsoknyi Rinpoche, in Open Heart, Open Mind, relates that he wasn’t able to cross a glass bridge connecting two skyscrapers without fearing he would fall. He’d freeze up, unable to move. He knew that his fear felt real emotionally, but was based in past experience not in the present situation. Finally, by repeating “Real but not true. Real but not true,” he was able to cross the bridge.  


A different approach comes from Lock Kelly, author Shift into Freedom, who suggests that we simply repeat the word “blah” over and over, then start paying attention to the space between the words, eventually expanding into that space.


Working with expanding our sense of space is a traditional part of awareness training. Once when I told a teacher that I felt a tightness between my eyes when I followed the breath, he suggested that I expand my consciousness beyond my physical skull into something like a sombrero around it. Kalu Rinpoche used to tell his students to visualize an orange going first three miles to the left of the head, then three miles to the right. Then up, then down.


The recommendation is to do these awareness techniques several times a day in short sessions. In addition to developing awareness, they help to integrate inside & outside and to enable us to see things as they are rather than as we would like them to be. 


In addition to the more active methods of developing awareness, one can remain still, shift away from thinking, and simply rest in awareness. Another very effective method is called “sky gazing.”  Sit facing a clear sky away from the sun, and let your mind “merge with the sky and stay there.” The outer sky activates the inner sky.


Body awareness, through yoga, tai chi or other methods can also allow you to drop out of the thinking mind and into the senses. From there you can begin to become familiar with non-verbal awareness. Dropping into the heart and sending out feelings (rather than thoughts) of loving kindness can also by-pass the confines of the moving mind. 


Behind knowing, moving mind, and awareness is clarity or lucidity which functions like a backdrop illuminating everything. Clarity, like knowing and awareness, is just there.  Often, establishing visual clarity by looking up and out into empty space will bring a sense of inner clarity.


The good news is that we have any number of methods and techniques to train the mind, to develop the capacity to shift from the moving mind into awareness and clarity. The bad news is that we actually have to practice them. We can’t just talk or read about awareness, we actually have to experience it for ourselves through our own minds.


So. Remember to meditate. Go to teachings, explore websites, listen to podcasts.


Keep going.


Suggested Reading: Shift into Freedom by Loch Kelly; Fully Being Online Course with Tsoknyi Rinpoche; Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson.  Mindsight by Daniel Siegel.